Simone made a huddle with her hands.
I realised I’d copied her. Or maybe my hands were already in that position. Fingers interlaced and palms touching so that they looked like a mountain. I’m holding them close to my mouth. It’s something I do when I’m anxious. Fingers near mouth.
‘Huddle’ (1961) is a ‘dance construction’ devised by Simone. Part sculpture, part dance. The performers pile on top of one another, forming a bound mass. They instinctively take turns to wriggle out of the mass – or mountain – and climb to the top.
Simone says the joy she finds in working sculpturally comes from being around other solid things. And placing herself in relation to them.
My feet are crossed at the ankles. Bound inside plasticky black boots. I’ve been walking for most of the day, on the phone trying to negotiate love at a distance. Stood still in a car park, arms outstretched, I described wanting to throw myself over this person like a blanket or belly flop.
As a child in Trinidad, Vahni circled a huge bronze sculpture of Shiva, the Hindu dancing God of destruction. Shiva holds a drum in one of his hands. If he decides to strike it, he’ll destroy time. He sits in the grounds of a Temple where Vahni’s Grandma grew roses. Cosmic time, earthly time, and the destruction of both, together.
Vahni also grew up around Carnival. A celebration that expresses elements of all the religions and spiritualities overlayed in the regions of Trinidad. Unknowingly, Vahni’s understanding of sculpture started here. They associate sculpture with huge still things. Things that, in their huge stillness, excite some extreme potential for human movement.
For me, sculpture can be sensual. I really wanted to poke my finger into Joseph Beuys’ fat and felt sculptures when I saw them at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin.
When Vahni saw Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures at the Accademia Gallery in Florence, they wanted to lie down and die. They say it was like witnessing a moment of evolution. Sculptures fledgling out of stone. Feathers poking out of a dinosaur egg. Their instinct was to lay down and stop breathing, whilst the stone would continue to move. It’s difficult to put that feeling into words.
Simone and her ex-husband Robert Morris collaborated on ‘Slantboard’ (1961), another ‘dance construction’. Robert made a seesaw with a wooden board. Simone and performers experiment with their bodies by balancing on it. To see the beauty of the body simply doing something.
I love being on my hands and knees, dog-like, says Simone. Experimenting from striding to standing, transitioning to hands and knees. Imagine that in front of a Henry Moore sculpture, the one that resembles a rhinoceros.
I sing on my hands and knees. It attunes the channel between my mouth and my asshole. Reading Dodie Bellamy’s Bee Reaved (MIT Press, 2021) last night, they describe their body, fossilised through grief, finding a momentary relief as they kneel down to clean up their cat’s shit. From there, they do a couple of quick cat cow stretches and their body is flushed with a need for love and touch.
Vahni holds a piece of bubble wrap up to the camera. They tell us about a tiny flossy squeaky bear. My chest lurches. This is the bubble wrap the bear came in. I see them holding the wrap softly, positively obsessed by its material qualities. Vahni’s long meditations on everyday objects, as mediators or interpreters of our embodied experiences, produce images and allusions that feature in their poetry.
I’m yearning for the bear.
Vahni’s words sear. I’m struck by the scenes they make with their words. Spoken-word images come quick, sometimes glitched to extra effect by the wi-fi. Vahni switches their camera off so the sound signal is stronger. I listen to their words against a black screen and the typeface of their name.
Set against a background of bookshelves and sunny daylight, Simone stirs the air with her hands. She’s talking about poetics. Moving kinesthetic images around in space as she speaks. Her way of exploring language is through practises of improvised movement and improvised speech.
Simone calls these ‘news animations’. She uses what’s going on in her mind as cues for improvisations between language, movement and physicality across scales of pressure, weight and balance. A transcription of these works was made for the occasion of Simone’s recent solo exhibition Senza Fretta at Centre for Contemporary Art Luigi Pecci in Prato, Italy.
Vahni’s not trying to be difficult. Or surreal. The struggle is in trying to be plain across the infinite pluralism of our lived experience. In touch and sight and between languages and dialects, spoken and written, dreamt and divined. They hear this polyvocality as they read, in the margins of the page. In a way so different from French poet Guillevic’s description of the margins as silent.
The sound of the feelings expressed in lyric poetry is something Vahni has to hear spoken aloud. It’s a practice of listening they liken to seeing yellow birds in trees.
Simone has been living with Parkinson’s disease for six years. It means her body doesn’t do it so much for her anymore. It doesn’t do that intuitive expressing of images with language and movement. So, she’s thinking more about writing, this way and that way. She’s reading William Carlos William and Kurtz Schwitters again. Kinds of poetry in which there’s a test that must be carried out.
I was recently on a residency practising a routine of yoga asana, pranayama, weight lifting and singing in preparation for writing. Getting into a state to write from.
Vahni grew up listening to their mother recite poetry in French and sing in Spanish and Hindustani, and around the lyric poetry of her father. Vahni’s air was being tuned. Words turned sculptural when they went to study Mediaeval Studies and Linguistics at University. Old English and Old Norse have consonants that are fixed and solid, whilst the vowel sounds in the middle become elastic, moved around again by the different breaths between speaker and speaker.
Right now, they push away the infinite pile of books they’re supposed to read. Instead, they’re slowly imagining a dialogue between the work of Yusef M. Qasmiyah and Gaston Bachelard. Its finding a place in the poetics of inhabited space.
I’m struggling to remain present now. As I write notes. I also flip to the back page of my notebook to write about the love-at-a-distance phone call from earlier today. Trying to make sense of the feeling of feeling stunned.
Simone is talking about a time in her creative life, after her father died and as her marriage to Peter van Riper ended. She found herself in a moment of transition. She set up a workshop, three hours once a week, for other artists who were also at an in-between place. An opportunity to try things out for and on each other. One woman in the workshop had become distant from reading the news, and wanted to heal this. Simone’s father used to read three different newspapers each day, which she says made her feel safe.
Newspaper became an exploratory form in the workshops. Simone assumed the readerly role of her late father. The integration of newsprint, and the concept of moving in response to the news, went on to sustain Simone’s practice for over ten years. Pathways, maps and stacks of newspaper print blowing open in the wind.
Vahni’s picking their level of danger. Walking along coral reefs in Tobago as a child, they found staircase-like structures built into the reef, running down to the champagne-coloured sea. Picking one, Vahni walks down towards shallow water and their ankle is suddenly lassoed by the Atlantic current. This situated affect – this feeling – is their poetic fodder, they say. It’s expressed in their book No Traveller Returned (Salt Publishing, 2003), which Vahni describes as an oblique autobiography. Tiny bits of poetry that speak to embodied experience. A way of refusing the rubbish of postcolonial definitions and biographies formed through white supremacy.
Me, on my recent residency. My studio was by the sea in St Ives. It’s a Cornish peninsula surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. Swimming every day, the rhythm of getting moved about by the waves started to affect my gait and posture. The waves of the Atlantic, hitting my body and the land, are an integral part of St Ives culture and its economies of tourism, which are buoyed by whiteness and colonial gains. The tides of that hit and steered my body, too.
I go into the communal kitchen of the house I live in. I do the regular dance of negotiation for use of the kettle and sink, all in joyful silence. It’s the kind of dance I became more attuned to through reading Simone’s Handbook in Motion (The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974) and sharing it with students. In it, Simone describes workshop sessions with her teacher Anna Halprin. And how she passed this practice of kinaesthetic awareness onto her students:
‘I told them that as they watched me talk they could tell a lot about what was going on for me. They could do this by simply watching how I held myself, and at exactly what instant I shifted my weight. They could sense these rhythms and tensions, they could sense how what they saw, felt’.
These practises evoke some of bell hooks’s methods of engaged pedagogy. My most potent moments of this in HE settings were, first, needing to ask if anyone had a tampon, and second, crying on Microsoft Teams during online teaching.
I uncross my feet. Hands on my thighs now. Feeling nourished by this conversation.
A process of workshopping movement. The development of a kinesthetic or experiential anatomical awareness. That’s how Simone describes Halprin’s teaching. The anatomical study of a body part which is then transferred into a movement study. You focus on articulating one isolated area of the body and the rest follows. It’s a process which Simone also describes as the ‘dance state’ – getting into the joyfulness of listening and answerin, as a practice of improvisation. A state of becoming very aware of sensation. At any moment in improvisation, the range of what you’re working on or with can suddenly change. It involves a lot of editing on the spot.
Halprin’s teaching sessions involved closely observing the ‘movement quality’ of trees and insects. The trees and insects became the teacher. In those workshops, the shared attitude was that the movement quality of anything can be a prompt or lead. Simone recalls a lecture with students where a stool she tossed across the room became the teacher. The group watched it go clunk clunk clunk clunk clunk. Then they moved.
Simone’s practice of ‘movement memory snapshot’ is something else I’ve shared in teaching sessions. The invitation is to bring to mind a memory, one particularly marked by the quality of movement the event involved. Then, you describe this memory to the group, making repetitions, noticing what comes up, making edits. Or you go solo. Last time I had a proper go, I told a story of bashing, bum to hip, with a lover in the frame of a doorway. The movement ricocheted through me and I noticed my body lengthen as I told the story, enlarging my torso as I over-described the door frame. The quality of movement was a broadening and extending, of making my body bigger like animals do.
Simone slows and stirs the air again as she describes her snapshot to the camera. Movement falling, balancing, almost not falling, she says. It’s the skim of an experience she had of almost falling from a ladder.
Removing narrative to stay with the feeling is a process Vahni describes as ethnographically rich. The trick is, don’t explain.
Vahni describes their own movement quality and awareness. A body that breaks its boots just by sitting. Who becomes obsessed with singular prompts from movement workshops and forgets the rest. Perform your smallest gesture, and now your largest gesture, the instruction says. Vahni conceptualises it like the zoom toggle on a camera, as a way of focusing in or panning wide with the imagination in writing.
Vahni’s camera is still off. They are a snake crawling on their belly through a red rock cave. Recounting an experience and wondering aloud at how to formulate its poetics as a way of being, rather than as a simple subject. I’m thinking back to having dead legs. During my residency routine of singing and breathing, sitting crossed legged, pushing out my belly for an hour or so, I would try to stand but my legs would be dead. Is pins and needles a funny tussle between intellect and feeling?
Simone describes part of her process for improvising with a public sculpture, ‘Song of the Vowels’ by Jacques Lipchitz on the campus of University of California Los Angeles. Looking at the sculpture, she says she feels like she is looking out from the inside of her mouth. She feels the shape of the sculpture as if it were inside her mouth. And once in her mouth, it feels natural to put sound to that sculpture.
Vahni says their voice is squeaky. When speaking whilst sitting, they say they don’t have the maximum quality of air in their buccal cavity to vocalise words properly.
As Vahni describes making a geometric drawing of the mouth cavity – which includes the position of the tongue, lips and streams of air – and how they use this diagram to map the way in which sounds are formed in the throat and in relation to different emotional responses to poetry – I think, wow. I wonder about Vahni’s intimate relationships.
Yesterday I had a session of acupuncture. My first. I felt frozen, both in describing the anxiety of some recent events that brought me there and because I was lying on the bed with two needles in either knee, two in my wrists and one between my eyes. Lying frozen, my breath felt like a thin line, only moving along one channel in my body.
The therapist asked to check my tongue. It’s swollen, she said, which is a sign that you need to eat more blood nourishing foods. Emotional imbalances affect the heart’s capacity to metabolise the blood.
Can I stay here? Can I stay here? Is Vahni’s refrain, which connects me to new projects they describe. One is a workshop exercise they call ‘Sitting with Difficulty’ or ‘Sitting with Discomfort’. It involves reading selected texts that express heavy subjects like, for example, violence and racism, and reading them slowly and repeatedly in small groups. It’s a practice Vahni has tried with the work of Trinidadian poet Shivanee Ramlochan. Through these cycles of slowed repetition you make a somatic map of the reader’s and listener’s responses on the text itself. Observing exhalations. Weights or tensions in the body perhaps. Changes in temperature. Tightness. Looseness. A change in pulse. These somatic readings become part of a formal analysis of the work.
I am both salivating and scared at the idea of staying with short sections of hard text for so long. Keeping them in my body and in the company of others. My nervous system felt so fucked after reading Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. that I went and got my hair cut really short. I had no idea what else to do.
Vahni connects us to the slowed duration of the Christian practice of Lectio Divina. Or, translated from Latin, Divine Reading. The structure is: read, meditate, pray, contemplate. Slow down with the body. Slow down with the text.
Resisting disembodiment in order to make analysis, and slowing down to notice, is a call Vahni is making to all language users. We return to sculpture. To walk around it. Let’s do the same with language. Be embodied re-visitors.
Does liveness automatically do it for us?
Simone describes performing in Switzerland after comparing the structures of animal bodies and her own. When Simone expressed the transformation of a tadpole into a frog an audience member with talipes who was watching said it was the first time she felt her foot normally.
After Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead in the back and neck outside Stockwell Tube Station in 2005, Vahni felt hyper-aware of her own brown body running in public. She began to perform leisure when anywhere near the underground. I’ve got my head in my hands now. Unseen in the zoom webinar, I can react fully.
I continue to listen to Vahni’s account of having to cauterise their instincts due to the racist imaginary. In a museum, they stifled their physical reaction to a Renaissance painting because, as a brown person in a white context, they were being surveilled. Standing in front of a painting and curving at the waist is different depending on what body you embody.
Which brings us to the thingness of ourselves.
Vahni attended to a vomiting man in the street during one Trinidadian carnival. They were dressed as the ocean – a sailor, sea and fish all in one costume. When our Vahni tapped the man on the shoulder to offer water, biscuits and tissues, he jumped back startled. He understood Vahni as an Oceanic mass. As a result, Vahni had the freedom to help without intersectional identities getting in the way. Vahni inhabited the borderlands with this vomiting man.
Us. Our it-ness. Our ashes a proliferation of worms. Or Simone pursuing a spider. Reaching out to whatever materiality, disciplines, beings, and states of being we need.
If I need something I reach for it, says Simone. ‘Cloths’ (1967) involves performers going unseen, flipping over clothes that are attached to large wooden frames whilst singing like you do in the shower. The inspiration was a dream Simone once had. In it, her husband said he never wanted to see her again. Instead of going away she hid behind a curtain, the sofa, a door. The performance is an undulation of cloth and song.
Vahni leaves us on a whopper, falling through different layers of time. They describe the non-correspondence between things experienced with our bodies and those experienced within our inner selves. And they use a fridge magnet photograph of Dippy the Dinosaur standing inside Norwich Cathedral as a prop to poke at both this relationality and the of encounter we’re willing to accept in language and poetry.
My anxiety is all over this piece of writing. And my experiences have been given harness by listening to Simone and Vahni hold faith in embodied knowledge as a way of grounding attention in one’s mind.
The ‘Performance Poetries’ in-conversation event with Vahni Capildeo and Simone Forti took place online on 15 December 2021, part of the Sculpture & Poetry programme hosted by the Henry Moore Institute in partnership with the University of Leeds and Corridor8. Recordings and related material can be found here.
Nicola Singh is an artist based in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, and Senior Lecturer in Fine Art and Curation at Manchester School of Art (MMU). Her practice spans solo and collaborative performance, film, sound, installation and drawing.